Guest Blog: Ernest J. Gaines – At Home in the Pelican State
By Lillie Anne Brown, Florida A&M University
The literary work of Ernest J. Gaines intersects history and culture with universal themes of self-respect, human dignity and personal integrity. His novels pay homage to ordinary black citizens who not only deserve respect in their everyday lives but crave it as a matter of order and sensibility. His obsession with the speech, cultural traditions, and mores specific to the Point Coupeé Plantation in Oscar, Louisiana, is notable in each of his seven works of fiction. When Gaines left the plantation in 1948, at age 15, to join his mother and stepfather in Vallejo, California, he had become so enamored with the land and its people that he was unable to extract himself psychologically and emotionally from the region of his birth.
While his experiences on the plantation helped shape him, the memories did not dissipate with his subsequent move to the West Coast. On the plantation there were people who knew his grandparents’ grandparents, and it was partly because of this familial association that he felt, for so many years after he left Louisiana, still connected to the region. The plantation of his birth is a cultural and emotional force in his life and serves as the fictional Bayonne community of his work. In his fiction the community serves as the site for social change, helps define notions of manhood, contributes to the social construct of male identity, and serves as the backdrop of cultural consciousness. Each of his novels depicts myriad complexities of a culturally diverse community that includes blacks, whites, Cajuns and Creoles, where each group embraces its own history. His fiction, a social and political commentary on race, class, gender, and the struggles and sacrifices of the powerless and invisible, represents the common strivings of the disenfranchised, the control of subservient labor by the majority class, and the folk culture that helps foster leadership and generate change.
As Gaines writes openly and passionately about the common people of his childhood, the most critical aspect of his fiction is the impact of racism upon black men—especially husbands and fathers—and the overall effect it has on the black family. From his first internationally published short story, “The Sky is Gray” (1963), to his critically acclaimed novel, A Lesson Before Dying (1993), Gaines’ fiction does not stray far from his emotional roots of the plantation. From the publication of “The Turtles,” his first short story, published in (San Francisco State’s) Transfer magazine in 1956, to his 2005 work, Mozart and Leadbelly, the author’s attachment to the plantation runs strong. In 2010, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where Gaines served as Writer-in-Residence from 1984-2004, established the Ernest J. Gaines Center, which serves as a global repository of the author’s works.
In 1964, the short story “The Little Stream” became the basis of his first novel, Catherine Carmier (1964), a love story set in a small, rural community in Louisiana beset with racial tensions among whites, blacks, and Cajuns. Internal ruptures occur within a Creole family when Catherine, a beautiful Creole woman, is forbidden by her father to associate with Jackson, a dark-skinned man who has returned to the plantation after ten years. The novel explores cultural and class differences and the volatility among members of two distinct racial groups in Louisiana during the period.
Gaines’ second fictional work, Of Love and Dust (1967), is an explosive tale of race and power in the southern trenches of Louisiana. Set in the 1940s, it contains multiple stories told from the viewpoint of Jim Kelly, a trusted worker on the Hebert Plantation whose historical viewpoint provides insight to each narrative. Marcus Payne, the novel’s central figure, is bonded out of prison where the price of his freedom is the performance of hard labor on the plantation of Sidney Bonbon, the racist plantation overseer. Angry and defiant, Marcus breaks all social codes of conduct by refusing to engage in subservient behavior and restricted language. His transgressions ultimately result in a violent confrontation with the overseer in which he (Marcus) is killed as he attempts to leave the plantation in a misguided plot to begin a new life with Louise, the overseer’s wife.
Bloodline (1968), Gaines’ only collection of short stories, offers a slight departure from his standard narratives. Four of the five stories, “A Long Day in November,” originally published in 1958, “The Sky is Gray” (1963), “Three Men” (1968), and “Bloodline” (1968) advance the theme of manhood, dignity, and identity politics captured in his earlier works. The first four stories are presented through the lens of the narrative’s primary characters. From six-year-old Sonny (ALBD) to eight-year-old James (“TSG”) to nineteen-year-old Proctor Lewis (“TM”) to Copper Laurent, the central figure in “Bloodline,” each tale presents a social, cultural and political awareness that allows each character to advance psychologically as he learns to understand the social, cultural and racial complexities that govern their lives. In the collection’s concluding story, “Just Like a Tree,” Aunt Fe, the central character, prepares to move from the safety of the plantation’s “quarters” to a more protected environment in the North. In “Just Like a Tree” Gaines offers a medley of voices which speak to the familiar themes present in each of the collection’s four narratives: the quest for human dignity, personal responsibility, pride and self-respect. The work serves as the stylistic precursor to The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) and A Gathering of Old Men (1983).
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman gave Gaines a national presence, with readers comparing him to (as well as placing him alongside) William Faulkner in capturing the history of race, politics, and the cultural fabric of the Old South. Told from the perspective of “Jane,” a one-hundred-year-old woman, the work is divided into four books: the War Years, Reconstruction Years, Plantation Years, and the Quarters. A key motif in TAMJP is the notion that perseverance is a sustaining principle one must possess in order to move forward. The novel, adapted for television with actress Cecily Tyson in the lead role, also served as the precursor for the television mini-series Roots in 1977.
Constructed from the omniscient point of view, In My Father’s House (1978) is Gaines’ signature novel of father and son separations. In his attempt to address issues of father and son estrangement, however, the author fails to develop the central figure, Reverend Phillip Martin, a man on a journey of redemption, beyond a stereotypical figure of the flamboyant, sexualized minister and small-town political activist. While the novel has notable strengths, its major flaws are its treatment of the moral, ethical and social issues that separate fathers and sons. Of the author’s seven novels, IMFH, the only work where the primary action takes place outside the Bayonne community, is the one most unfavorably received by critics.
Presented in a style of memoirist writing, Gaines allows each man in A Gathering of Old Men (1983) to claim, in separate accountings, their own visibility in a setting where each has heretofore been mistreated by the plantation’s overseer. While each man has a compelling story to tell, the most notable distinction is the collective pride each takes in standing up, literally and figuratively, for himself after a lifetime of unfair treatment at the hands of the oppressor. In AGOM, Gaines presents the men in the thematic structure of his canon: taking personal responsibility for one’s actions while remaining strong of character.
In the Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel A Lesson Before Dying (1993), Grant Wiggins, the plantation schoolteacher, reluctantly returns to the quarters with the objective of teaching the children on the plantation. He is both angry and disillusioned, and his frustrations are greatly enhanced by the mandate to teach Jefferson, the twenty-one-year old semi-illiterate plantation worker who has been unfairly sentenced to death—for a murder he neither planned nor committed—how to die with dignity. As the novel’s narrator Grant helps Jefferson realize the latent strength of his own (Jefferson’s) character. As a result Grant begins to understand that achieving manhood is more than simply reaching adulthood. “Jefferson’s Diary,” the private notebook that the imprisoned man keeps at the urging of Grant, is written in the phonetic vernacular of Jefferson’s speech and permits a dialogue of understanding and respect to eventually occur between the two men.
Previously published and unpublished short stories, autobiographical essays, and conversations on the craft of writing combine to make Mozart and Leadbelly (2005), Gaines’ latest literary work. In ML, he shares inspiration behind his literary career, how he became a writer, and reminisces about his childhood on the Point Coupeé Plantation in Louisiana. He also shares how he came to write A Lesson Before Dying, the importance of his southern upbringing and the musical influences that helped shape his work.
Over the years Gaines has received numerous awards for his works, which have been translated into over twenty-five languages and performed on national stages to critical acclaim. In July 2013, in a White House ceremony, he was recognized by President Barack Obama where he was one of 12 recipients of the 2012 National Medal of Arts Award.
Photo by: Lillie Anne Brown
Dr. Lillie Anne Brown is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Modern Languages at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida.
Posted on August 12, 2013, in Literature, Novels, Short stories and tagged American Literature, Book Review, Book Reviews, Books, Essays, Guest Blog, Guest Blogs, Guest Post, Literature, Novels. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.